Physicist Brian Cox is the nerd who is cooler than you. In the parallel universe known as Britain, which occasionally intersects with ours, he is a media star, the figure of choice for explaining science to the people — a Carl Sagan with a Britpop haircut, a Lancashire accent and a permanent toothy smile. He's less well known here, though you may have seen the online TED video in which he describes his work at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. (His "main research interest" there, he writes on his website, "is the FP420 R&D project, aimed at upgrading ATLAS and CMS with forward proton detectors 420m away from the interaction points." Just so that's clear.) And last year, People magazine named him one of the planet's sexiest men.
Often called a "rock-star scientist," not just because of his hair and his energy, but because he actually was in a couple of semi-successful pop bands (Dare and D:Ream — I had never heard of them either), Cox is also the cheerfully awestruck animating presence of "Wonders of the Solar System," a stimulating five-part BBC series that begins its American run Wednesday on the Science Channel. It's "the story of the creation of order out of chaos," a thematic exploration of universal causes and effects that highlights the similarities of the "ball of rock" we call home to the other balls of rock in orbit around the big ball of gas that gives the solar system its shape and its name and sustains us through "an umbilical cord of sunshine."
"If you think that this is all there is, that our planet exists in magnificent isolation," says Cox flatly, "then you're wrong."
The series keeps him on the move: He's in the desert, he's in the arctic, he's in the jungle, flying in a helicopter, piloting a boat, driving a snowmobile. In Death Valley, Cox calculates the energy of the sun using an umbrella, a thermometer and bucket of water. He sculpts Saturn in the sand of an African desert, and in an American convenience store makes a model of the solar system with a cigarette lighter for the sun and what look like peanut M&M's for planets. He's in Norway to see the aurora borealis, in India for a total eclipse of the sun, in Oklahoma's Tornado Alley to illustrate the conservation of angular momentum that has something to with ... well, I forget now, but I understood it at the time.
The cumulative effect of all this globe-trotting can be like something out of "Monty Python" ("I've come to this glacial lagoon in Iceland.... "). But it does look quite beautiful — it's a little arty, in fact, but only to emphasize the loveliness of things — as do all the pictures of and from our planetary neighbors and their many moons. Indeed, the series is a kind of love letter to the plucky spacecraft that send those pictures back to us, as they head out to where "the solar wind meets the interstellar wind."
Even when you can't follow the science, you can coast on the poetry.